The Pearl

by Colin Aitken December 17, 2016

The most profound story I’ve ever heard is a brief parable due to Jesus.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”

Like most parables, the story is short, thoroughly symbolic, and deeply unsettling. It also functions on two distinct levels: taken literally, it’s a horrifying tragedy about a man who gives up everything he owns in some sort of hedonistic quest. He searches for beautiful gems, hoping to satisfy his lust for wealth, until one day he finds the biggest pearl he’s ever seen. The pearl can’t feed him or his family, nor can it earn him the money to do so, but it serves as an icon of the wealth he craves. Unable to contain his greed, the man sells everything short of his soul until he is left with nothing but a single pearl, his only comfort as he presumably starves to death.

Sometimes I identify a lot with the man: I put material things over what really matters, too. But there’s also a spiritual aspect to the story, which to be completely honest scares me a lot more. Jesus’ implication here is that devotion to God is worth everything we have. The merchant here isn’t portrayed as some sort of supersaint, but only a typical member of the kingdom of heaven. Am I supposed to be like that? Jesus’s other statements on the matter aren’t very comforting: He advises a rich young ruler that he must sell everything he owns before coming to Him, tells his followers they must be willing to give up family and friends for Him, and ultimately advises Peter that anybody who wants to be following must be willing to “take up their cross” and face one of the world’s cruelest empires’ chosen form of humiliation and execution. Once last January I asked God to show me how to live that way, to love Him more than anything else in the world, to give anything and everything up for Him. The smallest of steps in that direction turned out to be a lot more complicated and painful than I expected. But before we get to that, there are some things you need to know about me.

The first thing you need to know about me is that one of my favorite people in the world is my grandmother, Mary. She’s one of the most profound thinkers I’ve ever met, both fiercely principled and unremittingly insightful. She takes on themes of death and peace and suffering and refugees with poems that alternately break your heart and challenge it and make it whole again. She’s always been both incredibly clever and powerfully creative, and by far one of the most inspiring people I know. But she’s also the sort of person who will love you enough to care about what you care about, even if you’re just a five-year-old kid dreaming of becoming a firefighter/ scientist. When I was little, I would play piano with her. She’d come up with wild and fantastical stories and I’d make up background music to go with them. We’d go on fantastic adventures together with pirates and penguins and Pikachus. As I grew older, our conversations became more sophisticated. We’d discuss Shakespeare and drama and art and movies and even math - even through last year, she insisted on asking about every one of my classes until she felt like she could talk about the subject. It’s kind of disconcerting to hear a literature-major-turned-dramateacher throwing around terms like “Fourier transform” and “cohomology theory.” But she wanted to be able to talk to me about things I cared about, so she put in the effort. Last January, she proposed a project to me: she wanted to write a poem about the “arrow of time” (which she’d recently been reading about) and she wanted me to set it to music1. It would be a collaboration of marked contrasts: in age, in gender, in outlook, in medium, in career. Her theological musings about shaping one’s destiny in the face of a relentlessly unbending world would blend with what I understood of math and physics to produce a sort of hybrid, a mix of two completely different and yet complementary worldviews by two friends who loved each other very much. But I was too busy. I was auditioning for a play, stressed about classes, trying to lead two bible studies, and absolutely didn’t want to also worry about creating music, let alone making a meaningful contribution to a difficult project. We decided to put off any joint efforts until the fall. That seemed fine.

The second thing you need to know is that I’ve struggled with pornography since high school. I think sin is a confusing thing. Sometimes it feels like it’s the only thing that can make you happy and you can’t imagine why anybody would think it was wrong, while other times you would cut off your hand to make it go away. Even Paul, a man hand-picked by God to be an apostle, writes:

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. [...] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. [...] So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?2

Porn isn’t really the sort of thing that’s fun to tell your family and friends about, so with a very few exceptions, I didn’t. That’s not a healthy choice - not only because it lets you pretend to be a better person than you really are, but because it gives other people with the same problem the impression that they’re alone, when in fact the opposite it true. I think that porn, along with similar issues of lust and hypersexualization, is one 3 of the biggest problems facing the Christian church in America today. The problem stems not only from the sinful nature of the act itself, but also from its contribution to a culture that objectifies and demeans women, causing real and lasting harm to performers and others. In one survey, 64% of self-identified Christian men and 15% of Christian women (including pastors!) reported watching porn at least once a month4. Porn now makes up more than ten percent of all internet searches5, and pornographic sites receive more monthly visitors than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. I don’t mean to excuse anything I’ve done, but only to place it in a larger context: men and women in our churches, our bible studies, our marriages, and our prayer lives are suffering. The last thing you need to know is that last January, I started to get a crush on one of my close friends. She’s great: wise, talented, friendly... I could go on for a while, but instead I’ll just say she’s great and I really liked her. On the other hand, we were good friends, and I was afraid that asking her out might screw that up, so I decided to pray about it. For two months straight I prayed about it, asking God for guidance. Near the end, I started to get a concise and persistent answer: “If it will bring you closer to God.” Since I’ve had many conversations with her in the past that helped me grow with God, I took this as a “yes”, so one Friday in March I asked her on a date. And she said yes! Two days later, I called my parents (as I do every week). We made some small talk. I told them about the closing weekend of my play and my spring break plans. We talked about my siblings, the weather, and how cute my baby nephew is. My mom chided me for my eating and sleeping habits. “We have some bad news.” News? “Grandmother’s in the hospital.” But she’s ok, right? “It’s really bad.” When is she going to get better? “We don’t know. She might not.”

I called Grandmother the next day. We talked about Shakespeare. We talked about the bible, and math, and poetry. She asked if I had any Netflix suggestions, and we bonded over a long conversation about Whiplash. We didn’t talk about doctors. We didn’t talk about hospitals. We didn’t talk about dying. The next Saturday I found out that Manuel, one of my homeless acquaintances, had died on the streets. I thought back to a few weeks before, when we’d given him some socks, a sandwich, and a rosary. I felt guilty about the twenty bucks in my wallet and the warm coats back in my dorm room - could either of those have saved him? Did anybody even know what had happened? I scoured Google News, looking for articles about his death or an obituary or anything to show that the world knew that a great man had died. I didn’t find anything.

The next day was Easter. I called Grandmother again, but she was getting worse. By then, we knew she had cancer and suspected it was terminal. We chatted a bit about the food in the hospital. She asked if I was enjoying Thanksgiving with my parents. I gently reminded her that it was Easter, and I was a six-hour plane ride from home. We chatted a bit more. She asked again. And again. And again. I tried not to cry. I tried to stay happy on the phone. But I felt very alone. I missed my parents. Nobody can hug you when you’re thousands of miles away. Suddenly (six days later), I was on a date! It was one of the most fun nights I’d had in a while - we went to the Friendly Toast and walked around Cambridge. We talked about happy things: our families and spring break adventures, movies and TV shows. I didn’t have to think about cancer or homelessness or any other awful thing. I was really excited: finally something was going right, and we got along really well. I thought we’d be a great couple. She didn’t.

I was crushed. For a perfect person, I think rejection would be a pretty simple thing: “Oh, this person doesn’t want to date me, so I’ll move on.” But I’m far from a perfect person, and any hope of a reasonable response was lost in a flurry of emotions and regrets. So rejection became a judgment on my personal worth, a friend whose opinion I deeply valued telling me I wasn’t good enough for her. It became a certainty that I would never find anybody who cared about me, that I wasn’t ever going to find happiness, that this was my only shot at love and I had screwed it up. It said that maybe if I’d been better, the date would’ve gone differently and this wouldn’t have happened. That if God gave the go-ahead and it didn’t work out, I must have somehow screwed up God’s plan. It said if I had agreed to write with Grandmother, we could’ve have had one last adventure together. That if I’d said the right thing when she told me she was in pain, they could’ve caught the cancer earlier. It said that I could have saved Manuel, had I just given him money, or caught up enough on my Spanish to talk with him more. It wasn’t all true, but it wasn’t all false, and sometimes that’s all it takes.

My Christian life became pretty hit-or-miss. I still went to church. I still prayed, albeit less and much more accusingly than before. I still read the bible at times, but I mostly avoided the passages about joy. I instead became more acquainted with the really unhappy parts of the bible: the biting critiques of the prophets, the existential despair of Ecclesiastes, the raw anger of the imprecatory psalms, and the gloomy misfortune of Job. I resonated with the emptiness, the rage, and the disappointment. I was craving intimacy, but I was too angry at God to turn to Him. I didn’t want to bother my friends with my problems, so I only rarely turned to them. Instead, I turned to the easiest form of instant gratification I knew. Sometimes I worry that the only thing distinguishing sin from addiction is a matter of degree. Temptation visits when you’re by yourself to tell you that nobody loves you. It comes when you’re craving intimacy to remind you that your life isn’t going the way you hoped it would, and that you’re powerless to stop it. It tells you that you’re going to be alone forever, that nobody cares about you, that only some woman you’ve never met on a phone or computer screen can give you the intimacy you seek. You resist, at first, but it doesn’t leave you alone. It says you’re stressed and angry, but I can give you release. It promises that none of this matters, but I can give your life meaning. It lies and it tugs and it prods, and eventually you’re too tired to resist, so you give in. See! You’re worthless. Look at yourself. I’m all you’ll ever have6.

Eventually it leaves, and you can’t remember why you gave in this time. You promise yourself that you’ll do better next time, that you won’t give in next time, that this is really the end of it. But it usually isn’t. In early June, Grandmother moved to hospice care. We flew up to visit her, knowing it would be the last time. What do you say to the person who’s always understood you before you spoke? How do you say goodbye? How do you say that you’re sorry? How do you tell her how much you’ll miss her? On the last day of her life, my brother and I spent the morning with her7. We held her hands. She couldn’t speak, so we talked to her. We told her we loved her. We said we’d see her again in heaven, where suffering would end. I read to her from her poetry.

Poems slide off my tongue as honey drips from combs sweet cloying fresh. Where is the bitter sting of truth/reality in all these bee-drenched words?8

We read psalms. We sang hymns. I tried not to look at her arms, now spotted with cancer. I tried to ignore the smell of death and the fear with which she gripped me. I tried to mask the guilt and misery I felt inside with hopeful words. I wanted to tell her how sorry I was. I wanted to play piano with her again, to go on adventures and tell stories about pokemon and pirates and penguins again. I wanted to tell her about The Tempest in space and our plans for Romeo and Juliet and ask her for books to read and plays to see. I wanted my grandmother back.

But she passed away that night. I played piano at her funeral the next week, hoping it would make me feel better about ditching her on The Arrow of Time. It didn’t. I went home, saw some friends, and came back to MIT to do research. During the day, I hung out with friends, did some cool math, ate food, and so on. I went hiking and watched fireworks. I put on a happy face and went about my life, as if that might actually make me happy. Sometimes it did. Mostly it didn’t.

So at night, I’d come home to the internet. That’s another thing about sin: it makes you apathetic. It dulls you to everything else. When you’re feeling lonely and upset, this comes as a blessing. It gives you a brief escape from the sadness and pain and brokenness and offers to make you feel whole again. It doesn’t, of course, but as you sit at its altar it feels like it’s shielding you from the bad things in life. Until it shields you from the good things in life too, and they start to seem less inviting, less exciting, less beautiful. So each time you feel a little bit emptier and shallower as you return to it again and again and again.

Until one day, you break down. At least, I did. I’d failed again and had locked myself in a room with a book I’d inherited from Grandmother. At some point I reached her bookmark - a small piece of cardboard signifying she had gotten this far and would never get any further. I realized that until I died, I’d never be able to to tell her how much I liked the book, or ask for her thoughts: it was simply too late. I’d never get to beg Manuel to stay safe or to give him what he needed to survive: I’d screwed that up. No matter how much my selfish pride wished otherwise, I was pretty small and unimportant in the grand scheme of things. The Christian concept of pride differs somewhat from how we typically use the word - it means something closer to selfishness or hubris or elevating yourself above God. Sometimes pride comes because we think we’re the best person in the world, while other times it comes in all sorts of other insidious ways as we put our own desires above those of others and those of God. So it was perfectly possible to be prideful even as I was curled up in a ball feeling worthless: I’d want other people to feel sorry for me, or hoped they’d feel guilty for things that had nothing to do with them. I’d focus on my pain over the horrors of violence and poverty happening to so many more people. I’d imagine that rejection was a personal slight and not just an honest description of feelings, or I’d blame Grandmother for not warning me that she was going to die. I’d shut God out, throwing away the will of my Lord and the only person who could ever truly love and know all of me to stew in a puddle of self-righteousness, self-pity, and regret.

Around this time, this failure of pride became increasingly clear to me. As I reflected and further prayed, I couldn’t see myself as a reasonable, generally nice person who’d been thrown a curveball by life. I saw a wretched, deeply flawed man whose passes at goodness and importance couldn’t cover up the lazy, lustful pride that motivated so many of my actions. I saw a man who hurt people around him by his self-centered responses to his problems. I saw a man who foolishly lived for short-term gain and indulgence (not just in porn, but things like food and books as well!) despite the beliefs I claimed I held about the bigger picture. I saw a man who covered a manipulative, self-centered, hypocritical, and judgmental core with a thin attempt at humility in hopes of making up for the rotten center.

But at the same time, I saw a God who deeply loved me. A God who knew every dark secret I kept, every selfish hate I harbored, every inadequacy and every way in which I fall short of goodness, and still called me his beloved child. A God who was so willing to call even imperfect, deeply hurting people to be his family that He came down and suffered a lonely death by torture and suffocation on a cross, descended into Hell to face wickedness in its fullest measure, and finally rose again to demonstrate that evil isn’t permanent. How could I ignore such a God? How could I not fall in love with Him again, even more deeply than before? How beautiful and yet terrifying and scandalous that God would love somebody like me!

I laughed. I cried. I prayed. I suddenly found myself in never known before. And I had one of those rare mystical experiences you can’t really explain but which suddenly and irrevocably change you. I felt like my heart was on fire within my chest. I saw something like a vision, although I don’t think “seeing” and “vision” are the right words. It was more like God scorched a picture of his plans and purposes into my heart. As if a long-term perspective on what I thought was important came and crashed through me, at once shattering and clarifying. Like God became impatient with my whining and said “look, here’s what you need to know.” In this dreamlike prayer, rejection didn’t seem like such a bad thing. Still a painful thing, mind you, but maybe not a bad one. I saw my pride, my lust, my struggles with porn, come together to reveal a sudden and terrifying depth I hadn’t been aware of. It was as if God was whispering this is what we’re up against. This horrifying, evil part that lives deep within you. Rejection, that trap I was sure God had set for me, was really the start of a radical intervention to overcome the worst of myself. There was a lot more going on, more details, more symbols, more satisfying explanations, and so on, but I didn’t understand all of it. It all seemed much bigger than me. Too overwhelming for me. But, for whatever reason, God had shown it to me. I collapsed to my knees in prayer and tears.

And suddenly I found myself clinging to hope. Hope in a God who’d taken on flesh and killed the sin in it. Hope in a God who’d conquered death and promised a resurrection when I’ll see Grandmother and Manuel again. Hope in a God who loves broken sinners like me and promises to make us whole again. Hope in a future when everything would be made new again, made good again, without any of the hurt and pain that follow us around now. Hope is different from sin. It nudges you towards God and invites you to love the One you’ve put your trust in. Instead of puffing you up or making you feel worthless, it whispers you’re not the point. It says you’re not big enough to fix everything that’s wrong with the world, but there’s somebody who is. It says you’re broken and sinful now, but someday God will heal you. It promises Jesus will confront, battle, and destroy every evil of every kind: porn, pride, racism, poverty, sexism, violence, cruelty, self-hatred, and ultimately death, and invites you to take part in the meantime.

So I asked God to make me whole again, to free me from addiction. I asked Him to use me to do something good in the world, to make it a better place. (You may note the subtle strike of pride there - asking to change the world while I’m still very broken and still learning how to repent.) I didn’t get quite the answer I expected.

What will you give up for Me? “...porn? Isn’t that the point?” I didn’t hear anything, so I asked again. Once again: What will you give up for Me? “I’ll fast once a week and donate the money?” I heard nothing, and asked yet again. Again: What will you give up for Me? “What do you want?” Everything.

I heard myself say “okay”, but it was still hard to believe. How had this happened? When did I become willing to give up everything? What did that even mean? I was confused, but my heart was on fire as I felt the most excited I’d felt in years. God had asked something of me, and I had agreed! I, still the same wretched hateful sinner I was before, could do something that God wanted!

And yes, God pulled through, at least for a bit. For five days I was suddenly freed from lust, from any temptation towards pornography in what I can only describe as a miracle. It was just so weird - all the temptations which had plagued me for years were suddenly just gone, and I worshipped God with the purest heart I can remember having. After five days, the temptation was back just as suddenly as it had left. It was as if God were intervening just enough to show that healing was possible, pushing me towards the painful process of natural recovery. To give me hope that following Him was worth it, but still asking me to put in the effort. So that’s what’s happened so far. I try to follow Him, try to put Him above my disordered desires, knowing that He’s worth it and will someday completely free me. Sometimes it really hurts to trust Him and I just hide and cry. Sometimes I completely ignore Him. But as each time I repent and turn a little bit more to Him, things get a little bit better. I get a little bit better. Someday, long after we’ve died in this life, God will remake his children in Christ’s likeness and we’ll be perfect. But for now, we know that God walks beside us as we stumble, fall, and stand up again each day.

To be honest, I’m still pretty scared about what giving God “everything” means. It’s not as though porn, or even pride, was the only thing wrong with me. If watching porn is wrong because (among other reasons) it’s me seeking pleasure from something ungodly, what about other movies? What about all the money I spend over the bare minimum on food - am I not still gaining pleasure from money I could have donated to something more worthwhile? What about all the books I own, that I’ve bought to feed my intellect but not to feed the hungry? Is it wrong to put so much effort into learning math that I could be putting into praying? Or into learning lines and acting that I could spend learning generosity and giving? Or into loving music when I could be loving God? What exactly does God want from me? What does it mean to deny oneself and give everything up for God? I don’t know yet. Do you? Will you?


I am falling in love again
so soon so long
in love with this world
with its beauty
its sun
its healing rain
its novelty
its surprises
its shallow depths
its deep firm sand
(that place where a boy with his bare feet once trampled I love you)
This morning I thought of
rain and its place
the need of thirsting plants
the depth of their roots
the depth of my roots;
my children, earth’s trees
All of it again, dear one,
in love again.
maybe this time
it will last forever.9

Footnotes

  1. Officially through the Art Song Lab program, she eventually partnered with Glenn Sutherland for the project.
  2. Excerpted from Romans 7: 15-25
  3. Yes, there are other problems too - I think things like racism, economic injustice, and spiritual apathy also rank among the most important.
  4. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/aug/24/more-than-half-ofchristian- men-admit-to-watching-/
  5. http://www.forbes.com/sites/julieruvolo/2011/09/07/how-much-of-the-internetis- actually-for-porn/
  6. Is it really any surprise that the bible links sexual immorality with idolatry? The interplay between the spiritual realm of demons and the chemical realm of addiction is complicated and poorly-fleshed-out, but the link is there nonetheless.
  7. On the way, we walked by a number of hospice patients who didn’t have any visitors. That was perhaps the saddest part of the whole experience.
  8. “Poems”, Mary Aitken
  9. “Falling in Love,” Mary Aitken.